From the Alhambra residents’ perspective, developers come in with their big profit ideas and disregard the long-term effect the new projects can have on what for many is their largest life investment – their home.
By Ari Gutierrez Arambula
While they lead busy lives with work, school and family priorities, what happens in their neighborhood is important to them on a personal and community level. Yes, they unabashedly care about maintaining property values, and the safety and security of their community.
Moreover, engaged neighbors have lived in the community for many years and often their entire lives. Personal investment and growing up in a community provide a perspective on the good, bad and ugly of past development projects. Clearly, the input, feedback and concerns of residents are critical to the success of every development project.
Development on East Main Street
Mr. Carl Wong is a developer who has taken a different tact – that of listening and working with neighbors to address their concerns and modify his “dream building” to one that also supports the vision the community has for their neighborhood. Working with the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce new Executive Director, John Bwarie, and a new architect, Skyler Kogachi of Schism Design, Mr. Wong hosted several community engagement events to present his plans for a new building on the site where the historical building he owned for years burned — twice on the same day — on Thanksgiving Day 2018.
For the community on the East Main Street Commercial Corridor (EMCC), located on Main Street between Chapel and Champion Streets, the neighbors’ initial response was tentative. They were listening to the grand vision Mr. Wong had to establish a shared office space for Taiwanese software developers that would be subcontractors to JPL and NASA’s space travel work. His now vacant lot at 918-924 East Main Street is just west of The Cue Ball and across the street from McDonalds near the CVS.
Another Community Protest
Last fall, residents pushed back on his proposed high-rise project during a Design Review Committee public meeting. Mr. Wong, with the help of the Chamber, then invited neighbors to a community gathering at the site of his project so he could explain his vision directly to the community. A cadre of community residents representing various advocacy groups showed up with protest signs taking a stand against the proposed building that would be much taller than other buildings in the area and a nondescript design that would 1) take away from the community’s character and 2) not be aligned with the community’s vision to develop an “old town” shopping district on the East Main Street corridor.
In the midst of a crowd of annoyed neighbors, Mr. Wong realized he needed to come to terms with community demands. While the neighbors heard some welcomed promises from the developer, they knew promises are not enough and asked for a meeting.
A few weeks later, the Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting with the developer, his architect, community representatives from “Old Town Alhambra” initiative, the Chamber, and Main Street Alliance representatives. After a presentation on the third revision of the building design, residents of East Main Street presented the community’s vision for the area and the building.
Residents proposed, rather than trying to “match” the bland mid-century design of existing buildings, they proposed recapturing the classic brick style of the original building. Neighbors suggested a design with modern style flourishes in signage, lighting, and functional features that would update the “post-war” brick design to make it a standout for the community that other businesses could emulate. In their view, they wanted a stylish and functional building that would attract long term tenants, infuse commercial opportunities for the area and attract other community-friendly businesses to the area.
When Residents and Developers Agree
At the subsequent Design Review Committee meeting on December 14, 2021, Mr. Wong proudly presented a new, cohesive, community-informed plan: the height of the building was lowered to match the adjacent 2-story businesses, the storefront design is more pedestrian friendly, and the design features honor the history of area while maximizing space and use for the shared office space. Residents’ public comments were now supportive and appreciative of the developer’s willingness to listen and adjust the design in line with their suggestions.
The building is for commercial use only – as required by local EMCC zoning requirements – and designed to accommodate retail stores that would be supportive of the building’s tenants and the community. In agreement with the public’s supportive comments, the Design Review Committee unanimously approved the project, and the developer and residents are happy with the plan. Now, as this developer’s project moves to the City’s Planning Commission and the Council for approval, it will be strategically advantageous to the developer that he is presenting his dream project with enthusiastic support by the community.
The item was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission on February 7, 2022. The public may submit comments on the “918-924 East Main Street” project to the Alhambra City Council with an email to: LMyers@cityofalhambra.org.
[This article has been updated with information on project approval on Feb. 8, 1:45 pm.]
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